War Is Over – HD-DVD Officially Dead

At a press conference a few minutes ago, Toshiba officially announced that it will “no longer develop, manufacture and market” any HD-DVD players and recorders.

Toshiba will continue, however, to provide full product support and after-sales service for all owners of Toshiba HD DVD products.

Toshiba will begin to reduce shipments of HD DVD players and recorders to retail channels, aiming for cessation of these businesses by the end of March 2008. Toshiba also plans to end volume production of HD DVD disk drives for such applications as PCs and games in the same timeframe.

The move effectively kills the format and finally brings to an end the several year long format war that has been running since both Blu-ray and HD-DVD were first announced.

HD-DVD was the first out of the gate in April 2006 with its players and discs. Despite lacking the support of three of the major six studios, the format’s cheaper prices and other benefits (eg. no region coding) but equally good audio/video quality led it to prove a surprisingly tough competitor against the Sony-backed Blu-ray juggernaut which came out a few months later.

Through til mid-2007, it also looked like the war could very well go either way – reviews for most titles on major sites generally favored HD-DVD more in terms of picture quality and functionality, whilst owners were generally more satisfied with their format than the Blu-ray counterpart. Yet Blu-ray had a lot more marketing muscle and an equally excitable fan base.

One good thing that came out of the competition is that it got Sony off its ass and was forced to actually work hard to make their format succeed. Whereas HD-DVD came out from the get-go with the best the format could offer, Blu-ray launched with unfinished tech that had far more potential, and thus was able to make dramatic improvements in quality.

Disastrously bad early Blu-ray titles (such as the infamous first “The Fifth Element” printing) quickly improved, the studio dumping its crappy MPEG2 video codecs, lackluster audio tracks and inadequate single-layer 25Gb discs for dual-layer 50Gb discs and much higher quality transfers that equaled or exceeded their HD-DVD counterpart. Its interactive features only recently finally caught up with HD-DVD’s nifty picture-in-picture capabilities amongst other things, but have offered better quality video for its supplements thanks to the format’s extra space.

By late Summer last year, Blu began to overtake HD in terms of reviews and quality. Thanks to the PS3’s footprint, sales of Blu always remained superior (about 2:1 in the US, higher in other countries) but never as overwhelming as the Sony marketing machine would have you think. Paramount’s defection to HD-DVD in August for example, showed that the war was still very much in play.

The decisive move though was Warner Bros. defection to Blu-ray during the New Year. That originally dual-format supporting studio was easily the market leader in the high-definition realm and so with it firmly entrenched in the Blu-ray camp, other major dominoes began to fall. The mega-distribution trio of Best Buy, Netflix and Wal-Mart all going Blu-ray last week hammered the final nails in HD-DVD’s coffin.

The fallout will be settling for the next week or so. This will not please HD-DVD owners however and as of last month, over a million dedicated HD DVD players have been sold with several times that many discs as well. Studios have yet to announce any plans for a ‘format swapping’ program allowing disgruntled users to get Blu-ray equivalents of their libraries and its expected that they’ll simply have to eat the costs.

HD-DVD exclusive studios Paramount and Universal are expected to have been freed from their commitments, in fact talk has it that Paramount has already been getting Blu-ray copies of its major 2007 performers like “Transformers,” “Blades of Glory” and “Zodiac” ready for release quickly. Blu-ray versions of HD-DVD only titles like “Batman Begins,” “The Mummy,” and “Heroes: Season 1” are expected to all hit shelves later in the year.

So thinking of going out and buying a Blu-ray player right now? Hold it a moment. If you’ve already bought a stand-alone Blu-ray player other than a Playstation 3 then you’ll be stuck with the HD-DVD people – ie. likely to throw out your player in the near future.

Only players capable of playing Blu-ray’s 2.0 profile (aka. BD-Live) are truly future proof.

At present, the only player capable of doing that is the PS3, though Panasonic and Sony are expected to release players soon that use the standard. We’re also still a good year or so off from the holy grail – a region free Blu-ray and DVD player that can play either format disc from anywhere in the world.

For the full press release, click here.